Postcolonial technologies of power: standardized testing and representing diverse young children.

Author:Viruru, Radhika

The words "after 9/11, the world changed" have been reiterated, with different meanings and in different contexts, by diverse groups of people. Recognizing the fact that the people for whom the world seems to have changed the most have probably not had either the access or the time to engage in this dialogue about change, some scholars, postcolonial and otherwise, have been calling for a renewed commitment from academics to enter into work that goes beyond the "Ivory Tower" and to take on the role of public intellectuals (Barsky & Ali, 2006; Chomsky, 1967) in this changed world. In the area of postcolonial studies, there has been a renewed focus on the technologies through which imperial projects are carried out whether "abroad" or "at home," although the two are not necessarily so neatly divisible.

The particular form of unquestioned technology that is explored in detail in this paper is standardized testing. One of the reasons why it invokes such interest is that it is upheld by both the right and the left as an "objective" assessment of how both schools and children are performing (Kohn, 2000). However, there is a growing body of research and resistance that views testing as the ultimate imposition of not only rampant scientifism, if there is such a word, but also of corporate capitalism upon children and schools. The impetus for testing reflects corporate strategies that have been used all over the world by big business (Park & Schwarz, 2005): create a need and then try to fulfill it. Within educational contexts, Kohn (1999) has shown how many recent reports on American public education have been authored not by educational professionals but by representatives of big business such as the Business Coalition for Education Reform, the Business Roundtable, the National Alliance of Business and the Committee for Education Reform. As Miyoshi (1993) has commented, whereas the "old" colonialism used nations, ethnicities and races as its building blocks, the "new colonialism" operates more through transnational corporations. This new colonialism, Miyoshi cautions, is harder to isolate and counter, as it operates through multiple locations and through global networks. Scholars such as Martin (2004) have commented that, in its never ending search for new ground, modern capitalist colonialism has increasingly concentrated on the sphere of domestic life as an avenue for profit making: citizens are being redefined as consumers, and the home is being transformed from a sanctuary into a "command post for market manipulation" (p. 352). Similarly schools too are now increasingly being targeted for such attention, most strikingly through the nation wide imposition of standardized testing (Cannella & Viruru, 2004).

Much of the critique of standardized testing has centered on such effects as the limited and narrow curricula it has created in schools and on how it has been tied to high stakes: where jobs, salaries and in some cases the very existence of schools are tied to high test scores. The effects that these policies are having on schools has also been documented: widespread teaching to the test, the elimination of recess and playtime for young children and so forth (Ohanian, 2002; Kohn, 2000). This paper attempts to strengthen these paths of resistance by exploring another part of testing that has not received much attention until now: what kind of material is actually on these tests? With so much focus on the tests being directed towards the skills that are covered by it, and making sure that the children know those skills, little attention has been directed toward the medium through which those skills are assessed. As the analyses to follow will show, the selection of content seems to reflect some very determined agendas.

In this paper I first look briefly at how standardized testing has been created as an imperialist project. Second, the main body of the paper is dedicated to an in-depth look at the technologies of power that are evident in the content of the reading portion of various state standardized tests and how they contain rampantly colonialist images of people of color. With mandatory standardized testing a reality in every state in the United States, it is more important than ever that tests be scrutinized as to what kind of content they include. The analyses presented in this paper suggest that standardized testing for young children is colonizing: (1) the way in which testing has been constructed represents corporate rather than child centered agendas; (2) the ideology of diversity represented in many public policies, particularly standardized testing, instituted in the United States is gravely limited; and (3) by mandating that children take tests but by not regulating the content that is part of those tests, racist and colonialist ideas are being presented to children in legitimate forms. Officially the goals of the tests are to measure whether or not children can identify the main idea of a passage or parts of a sentence. However, this paper focuses on other agendas that may be contained within/imposed by the tests. The logic of the tests seems to be that the content of the reading passages is essentially irrelevant, as the tests are not about content but about testing comprehension powers. This is an example of the kind of imperialistic logic that makes the tests so dangerous.

Philosophical Perspectives

Standardized testing, at least in its current avatar, is perhaps more of an "American" preoccupation rather than a global concern (see Santos 2005 for postcolonial perspectives on the use of the term American to refer to citizens of the United States). In this paper, I examine the construction of standardized testing not only as a cultural product but as an imperialistic product. Recent postcolonial scholarship has focused on the need to direct an anti-imperialist gaze not only upon U.S. policies around the world but also within the United States. Not only are U.S. domestic policies considered important because of their potential to impact the rest of the world, but also because they appear to be cloaked in a myth of what Park and Schwarz (2005) call "American exceptionalism ... that fetishizes the ideals of freedom and democracy and claims them as their own national property" (p. 153). The unique kind of discourse and dialogue that surround the constitution of public policies is important to examine and deconstruct, as they are part of the new imperialism: the kind of colonialism that has less to do with the conquest of lands and property and more to do with constructing human beings within limited life trajectories and paths. Park and Schwarz consider it vitally important to engage in the kind of intellectual work that not only documents the cultural, economic and political changes being wrought through American policies around the world, but also to look how it has imposed itself as world domination. This is especially important in light of the arguments by such scholars as Ducille (1996) who have argued that the rhetoric of American imperialism has been always grounded upon internal violence against its own minority populations. Feldman (2004) has cautioned that the United States is at war with more than terror, it is also engaged in what he calls "deterritorialized wars of public safety" (p. 330): wars that focus on achieving specific kinds of internal hegemony, through the symbiosis of fear and other directed aggression.

A critical examination of standardized testing as an imperialist product cannot take place without a recognition of the context in which it is being constituted. American troops are currently stationed in 19 countries around the world (Johnson, 2004). Americans constitute 6% of the world's population but consume 25% of the world's resources. Further, as Park and Schwarz point out, many national policies in the United States have directed resources away from the most vulnerable parts of the population, as part of a larger plan for greater economic and territorial domination. This is certainly a critique that has been applied to national policies on standardized testing (Ohanian, 2002). Another aspect of American imperialism that is particularly significant, according to Park and Schwarz, is its ability to define its enemy in terms that allows it the freedom to engage in unconventional tactics and to appoint itself the defender of morality and ethics. The example cited is how the United States currently considers itself as engaged in a war on "terror" (as opposed to terrorism): the use of a newer term allows for it to be defined and situated among certain specific populations, who can then be engaged with and controlled in specific ways. Similarly, the rhetoric behind standardized testing has focused on the need for "measurability" and "accountability": vacuous terms in an educational context, terms that allow for new forms of domination. Furthermore, American imperialism (for a further discussion of the genealogy of this term see Kaplan & Pease, 2002) is also often justified as acceptable, since it has, at least its own eyes, already achieved ideal domestic order (Trombold, 2005). When trying to put the affairs of the world in order, the contrast is often made between those untidy spaces in which it is, noblesse oblige, forced to intervene, and its own ideal self. Thus, according to Trombold, what "America" is trying to impose upon the world is its own version of imperial multiculturalism. It is in this light that I believe we should examine standardized testing.

In line with other American imperialist endeavors, the constitution of standardized testing too forefront issues of "multiculturalism": tests, on the one hand, are defended as putting in place standards for all children, no matter what their background, thus ensuring that all children receive an equal education. Simultaneously however, the same tests end up defining children of color as the populations at...

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